The destination for history

Wild times in a London park


Nick Stewart Smith author of The Thousand Year Old Garden unlocks the gates and invites us to wander through a beautiful park‚ situated between the urban bustle of Peckham and the busy streets of Camberwell in London.

Early every Saturday morning, there is organised run with hundreds of people from around the local area taking part, trying to complete a 5 kilometre course across Burgess Park in whatever way they can. Quite a few should end up close to where I am standing here in Addington Square under the shade of a horse chestnut tree. The joggers will crowd together in their running gear and lycra around the little snack bar nearby, gathering there to share tea, coffee and conversation with friends and with strangers.

This small residential square from where I am observing proceedings is just inside the park perimeter, just inside this vast London parkland of 56 acres, a green space that flows between the urban bustle of Peckham and the busy streets of Camberwell. The morning breeze gives soft breath to the air and a few pale pink blooms from the horse chestnut flutter down around me. There are other activities going on nearby, there are tennis courts next to the snack bar. Out of my sight I can hear the thwacking of the ball, the pocking sound of the racket strings as they are struck. The players shout out the line calls and update their scores with diligence.

A squirrel perched high on a plane tree branch gazes at me in disbelief as I lean back on the trunk of the chestnut. I would like to sit down and rest for a minute, but the grass is wet after all the rain that fell through the night, and there are no benches here in the square. Close to the entrance gate some ageing paving slabs suggest that once a bench was present, and a Southwark council rubbish bin standing adrift beside the small, paved rectangle gives further evidence that once a place to sit was there. But no longer.

It is early May and some spring flowering is still to be found in the square. On the point of collapse, there are many tulips in a weird mix of colours and varieties, a mix that would never be found in a natural setting, but still seems to be considered a completely normal combination in a garden. From the 120 or so tulip species known to horticulture, many native to central Asia, thousands of different variations have occurred or been produced, and through the centuries they have made their way across the world. Over a millennium ago, poets from Persia were writing of these flowers in phrases filled with awe and wonder.

The majority of the tulip bulbs bought these days will have been grown in the Netherlands, from where 77% of all flower bulbs commercially sold originate. It sounds quite nice, huge fields of tulips and other things in vivid hues at this time of year, carefully regimented into broad rows. But then, as an industry, this kind of horticulture is reliant on chemicals, fungicides, pesticides and so on. Therefore, those fields of spring colour must have been drenched with poisons for decades.

Over the years, I have bought and planted countless tulip bulbs. Something I regret now is that I did not try harder to source ones I could be certain had been grown without any chemical assistance. In my life as a gardener, I have never used chemicals, even though for much of my time I have been in charge of sites considered high profile – 10 years in Devon for the National Trust, followed by 6 at Chequers in the Chilterns, finally going to Lambeth Palace for a further 7. In all these places while I was there, pesticides and synthetic fertilisers were never present, no fungicides, no weedkillers. Those who support such concoctions for horticulture are nervous of these words, nervous of terms like ‘killer’ or ‘poison’, preferring sweeter labels such as ‘plant enhancement products’ to be used.

With a guilty shudder I consider my failure to be more circumspect when tempted by the tulip’s astonishing array of different colours and forms, the endless variations they can bring to a garden. But I can change my ways, I can make other choices next time.

Alongside the now ragged troops of tulips are sweeps of golden daffodils, also falling to the grass as they struggle with the weight of oversized flowers on green stems that seem too slender to support them. They lie there forlorn, petals glittering with heavy rain drops. Looking closer, I see they are probably Narcissus ‘King Alfred’ with their prominent yellow trumpets protruding from the centre of each flower, sounding their presence to all around, even if those sounds are rather muted now in the first week of May.

A few years ago, when Sir David Attenborough visited the garden at Lambeth Palace in spring, he asked me why there was such a bizarre mix of daffodils all around, why there were not more natives in such a long established garden, the kinds of daffodils that William and Dorothea Wordsworth might have strolled through in the Lake District, marvelling at the golden flowers dancing in the breeze. It was a difficult question to answer, but I replied that for many years the fashion in gardens had been to plant many different variations of daffodil in fairly random patterns, unnatural and strange as that might appear. However, we tended to favour the indigenous daffodil, choosing the Lentern Lily or Narcissus pseudonarcissus for our plantings, England’s only native daffodil. These are delicate things with deep yellow trumpets surrounded by a crown of paler leaves. Sir David looked me in the eyes and nodded.

Then he shook my hand and went on his way, saying ‘you are doing well’ as he smiled warmly at the surrounding garden despite the cold chill of the morning. For a moment or two, his words caused me to levitate slightly, my feet an inch or two above the weathered flagstones. Fortunately, nobody seemed to have noticed anything unusual, not Sir David nor Archbishop Justin who was accompanying him. Alice and Cheyenne, my fellow gardeners, were close by, continuing with their garden work as carefully as always and not looking in my direction.

With feet back on the ground I watched the two venerable men leave the raised terrace where we had met, saw them walk across the grass and step below the dark branches of the lovely tulip tree. They then strolled past the yew topiary pyramids to disappear through the doors into the mysterious inner world of the palace.

Those are memories from a while ago. Today, on this bright morning in Camberwell I gaze down at the ‘King Alfred’ daffodils while picturing their English relatives, the Lentern Lily narcissus, wondering how clusters of those natives would look meandering across this garden square. But I see the joggers have begun to collect around the snack bar, and it is time for me to move on.

Less than a hundred years ago, the immense park of rolling green they have just run through was not here. Instead, the space was a network of narrow streets where little houses jostled each other, terraced rows regularly interrupted by various factories throwing out smoke from their impressive chimneys. The busy Surrey Canal came through here, the Peckham branch being opened in 1826 as a route for commercial barges and other boats. For the next 120 years, those craft pushed along the waterway to ply their trades day in day out, carrying materials to and fro, until everything was changed by the catastrophe of World War II.

These parts were badly hit. Between October 1940 and June 1941 at least 49 high explosive bombs fell from the air and shattered almost everything that had occupied the area that is now the park where I am standing. Many more bombs rained down hard on the surrounding streets over nights of unimaginable terror.

Rather than rebuild from the burnt out wreckage of the war-time hell, a slow process of change began as tons of broken masonry and glass were removed. The old streets and buildings were not to be replaced but instead pieces of cleared land were acquired bit by bit on behalf of the local council. The plan was to join everything together to create a new open space for the benefit of all, and by 1973, something resembling the present day Burgess Park had appeared. The slow assembly took nearly 40 years, the weaving of a living green quilt carefully stitched together, piece by piece. And now that green quilt covers this land between Peckham and Camberwell, 56 acres filled with trees and grass, wild meadows and water.

Gardening with wildlife in mind has been given an emphasis here, especially since 2012 when the park was awarded an £8 million grant to facilitate further developments, including much more planting and many more trees. Large areas are left undisturbed for wildlife habitat, so good to see. This approach is helpful not only to the millions of wild creatures that have taken up residence in the park, but also beneficial for the thousands of humans who visit each day, even if only passing through with no time to pause quietly beneath one of the trees.

I look back across Addington Square. To my left, a broad patch is unmown, left to its own devices, a kind of gesture to the wild enclosed by the curve of the black iron railings. One plant above all is running free there, cow parsley, and as I approach, it reaches up to me with a keen froth of fresh white flowers, its green foliage like eager young ferns. Closer to the ground I can see the vivid flashes of blue alkanet.

The cow parsley swims around me and for a few moments I can float in the pale white waves. The botanical name Anthriscus sylvestris suggests a preference for the edges of a woodland, but it is doing well enough here. At this time of year it can be seen in many places, on roadside verges and waste ground, in gardens and graveyards, taking a chance wherever there is a small opening.

Some call this an invasive weed but I do not accept that definition. Cow parsley has been present in all the gardens I have looked after, suddenly appearing in paths and paving, their unmistakeable forms occasionally boldly threading through planted areas where I had no wish to see them. But I could simply pull those intruders out if they became too much. And I must not forget the fantastic early nectar source they offer to various pollinators such as bees and hover flies, while later also providing good forage for orange tip butterflies. Humans could also forage the young leaves. They are said to taste like sharp chervil with traces of licorice, but their close resemblance to deadly hemlock indicates extreme caution should be taken.

I haven’t had breakfast yet and must hurry home now. As I make my way into the main park, I look back at the cow parsley and see again its cheerful attempts to be as wayward as possible, scrambling and sprawling, branching and creeping, while hemmed in by the solemn railings surrounding the square’s planted area.

There is a kind of dream that recurs through English gardening, the dream of the wild brought inside the walls, a constructed arcadia where we gardeners may wander around in our luminous haze. I’m not sure what to make of that, but I do believe that although gardens can never be the wild countryside, they can share elements with it, so that the space which is enclosed and tended to can be another kind of haven, a place where all kinds of essential wild creatures can find what they need to thrive.

I will think it over some more as I walk slowly back to the Peckham apartment block where I live, returning home to make some breakfast before the morning is over.

By Nick Stewart Smith

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